Thursday, July 31, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow - Live. Die. Repeat.

Many of you have probably heard of the movie Groundhog Day, known for its plot involving its central character going through a time loop until circumstances allow him to break the cycle. This type of plot is also present in many other works, so much so that this type of plot is referred to as a Groundhog Day Loop, including a Japanese light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka called All You Need Is Kill, in which this same plot line is used to depict a soldier going to war against an alien threat. I have not read this light novel, but I have read its manga adaptation in the US Weekly Shonen Jump digital service, adapted by Ryosuke Takeuchi and illustrated by Takeshi Obata (best known as the artist of the Death Note manga by Tsugumi Oba). This adaptation was released during the time leading up to the release of another adaptation of All You Need Is Kill, being the movie Edge of Tomorrow, the subject of this review. While I enjoyed reading the manga version of the story, I had an interest in seeing Edge of Tomorrow to see how close/different it would be from the source material. Having seen this movie recently, I can say that, while it obviously takes some liberties with the plot, I actually enjoyed it for what it was.

The world has been invaded by an alien race called Mimics, with countries doing everything they can to put a stop to them, among the better soldiers fighting the Mimics being Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). Through TV broadcasts, we are introduced to Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) from the US, who is later called to see General Bringham (Brednan Gleeson) in London about the Mimics. General Bringham soon reveals to Major Cage that he (Cage) is being sent to France in order to fight the Mimics on the front lines. When Major Cage refuses and makes threats to give a bad impression of the General, he is placed under arrest and knocked unconscious. Cage later wakes up at a base at Heathrow Airport, where he is in handcuffs and greeted by Master Sergeant Farrel (Bill Paxton); though Cage tries to get out of it, he is brought and assigned to J Squad, where he becomes acquainted with the soldiers there. The next day, Cage is put in a suit of armor, or Jacket, like his squadmates, though before they can be properly deployed onto a beachhead below them, the carrier they are flying in gets blown up; the members of J Squad make it down intact, though soon there are casualties. As Cage and his squad are facing off Mimics, all while Cage tries to ask how to turn his safety off, they eventually have to fend off a Mimic while taking cover in a pit. Cage manages to turn off his safety in time to survive the Mimic attack, taking out a blue Mimic in the process. However, he is taken out as well and is splattered in the Mimic’s blood. Afterwards, Cage wakes up at the base at Heathrow Airport, where everything plays out as it did the day before, though only he is aware of it.

Being a film adaptation of a book, specifically a Japanese light novel, it should be expected that there are differences between the two versions. However, the changes made to suit the movie work in its favor, giving it a unique feel while still preserving the basic story and terminology (they don’t even shy away from Rita Vrataski’s nickname in-universe, the “Full Metal Bitch”). The movie also takes opportunities to expand on parts of the story to suit the new narrative, though giving examples might create spoilers for those who have yet to see Edge of Tomorrow. The romance angle between the two leads (Cage and Vrataski) is an element preserved from the original All You Need Is Kill story, which the movie handles really well, coming off as feeling like a natural part of the story rather than feeling shoved in for the sake of a romance, helped by the performances of Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt portraying their respective characters near flawlessly. The movie also does a good job of explaining its mythos while keeping itself internally consistent, which is a must for this type of story.

William Cage (Tom Cruise) facing off against an unusual Mimic.

As mentioned, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt perform their parts well, allowing their parts to feel more natural and thus you are able to feel for their characters. Tom Cruise in particular does well with displaying William Cage’s character arc as he goes from wanting to stay away from the field of battle to figuring out how to work with the hand that he has been dealt over the course of the movie. However, the actors portraying the secondary and minor characters in the movie also pull off good performances, with each character feeling unique given the amount of screen time they have and their personalities come across as believable within the context of the story.

The visual effects are also pulled off really well, with the CGI Mimics blending well into the movie and not feeling out of place with the rest of the action. I also enjoyed seeing the animation of the Mimics themselves, since, while it is of course a different interpretation of their appearance than in the manga adaptation, I thought their designs were interesting and helped set them apart from other depictions of aliens in other movies. Though the Mimics have a general appearance to them, there’s still some visual variety among the different types of Mimics so that they don’t seem monotonous. The designs of the Jackets that the soldiers wear are also interesting, seeing them in action even more so. There’s also some visual variety in the Jackets, even if it’s just an aesthetic difference, and I liked seeing how different parts of the armor work to activate different functions. Visually, this movie does not disappoint.

Edge of Tomorrow is not only a good interpretation of All You Need Is Kill (again, based solely on having read the manga adaptation beforehand), it also works well as a movie on its own. The acting from the main leads is very impressive and believable, the visual effects are pulled off well, and the story makes good use of the Groundhog Day Loop plot. This is a movie I would recommend for those who are familiar with All You Need Is Kill in some way, though I would also say to watch it at least once if you are a fan of action movies (and /or Tom Cruise) since it manages to work well on its own. Having enjoyed it myself, Edge of Tomorrow is a movie that I wouldn’t mind watching again.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Skylanders #0 (Comic) - Zero Toys Required, Still A Good Start

While the Skylanders franchise has proven itself to be a very profitable/successful Spyro reboot and toy seller (even if Spyro himself isn’t really in the spotlight), it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of supplementary material, aside from a few spin-off games and a handful of books. To rectify this, IDW Publishing has recently announced a Skylanders comic book series, which more recently made its debut with an exclusive issue #0 at San Diego Comic-Con, its own story serving as a prequel to the upcoming Skylanders: Trap Team. As a Skylanders player myself, I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first, but as the Con drew closer I decided to give the comic a shot so as to invest myself further in the series lore; to this end, I ended up (unintentionally) getting two copies of the comic at the IDW Booth (I was aiming for one), as well as copies of the variant cover after attending the Skylanders panel at the Con (this seems to be the only way to get this particular variant) and getting each copy of the comic signed by the issue’s writer, David A. Rodriguez (he had a signing each day at IDW throughout the Con). After reading the series’ debut issue, I would say that this new comic series is off to a good start, though it’s much too early to tell how good it is at transitioning into the story of Trap Team (since, you know, the game’s not out just yet).

When Lord Kaos makes a discovery, he explains to his servant Glumshanks about a prison in Skylands known as Cloudcracker Prison, wherein Skylands’ biggest villains are encased in a material known as Traptanium, the most durable substance in all of Skylands. When Glumshanks asks what this has to do with anything, Kaos explains that he has a plan that will eventually grant him total control over all of Skylands. Later, The Skylanders Pop Fizz, Stealth Elf, and Wash Buckler are flying with Flynn as Stealth Elf practices, but no sooner do they have to join other Skylanders in fending off an army of Trolls attacking a supply of Radiance Crystals, the element used to make Traptanium. If that’s not enough, a Doom Raider named Wolfgang appears to overwhelm the Skylanders.

David A. Rodriguez, the aforementioned writer of this issue, does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of the characters Kaos, Glumshanks, and Flynn, as their personalities and actions lined up with what they would normally do in the games (I have not really played or read any supplementary material), to the point where I could hear the characters saying their respective lines. I personally don’t know much about the personalities of the Skylanders themselves, since I haven’t read many character bios and any personality I have seen from them comes mainly from whatever they say in toy form, commercials, and a handful of cutscenes. However, the actions of the Skylanders present in the story, especially those that got the most screen time (Spyro himself appearing in only a single panel), felt like things they would do in the situations they were presented with. Again, it’s too early to tell how well this comic lines up with the plot of Trap Team, but I would nonetheless say it was well-written as it seems to set up plot points present in said game.

The Doom Raider Wolfgang shows up in this comic.

Mike Bowden’s art on the comic does well with capturing the general art style of the game, as well as having each character looking accurate to how they look in-game (and on-toy). The colors by David Garcia Cruz suit Bowden’s art well and help each character pop out in their respective surroundings, helped by the use of a generally bright color palette. There is one gripe I have with the art through, but this isn’t a mistake original to the book: the Trap Master Snap Shot uses a bow-and-arrow as his oversized weapon (a visual gimmick of the Trap Masters), but, as with his toy and official artwork, the bow lacks a bowstring (which is, you know, an important part of a bow’s anatomy), so even in the context of a comic it looks like Snap Shot is holding some weird-looking object rather than a proper weapon. Aside from this one thing, I don’t really have any complaints about the artwork.

There is also a set of four character bios in the back, namely for four of the Trap Masters introduced in Trap Team (Jawbreaker, Wildfire, Snap Shot, and Wallop). I find this feature to be interesting, since it allows the reader to know more about characters from the game series without having to look them up online. Though laid out much differently, this reminds me of a similar feature that was included within the issues of IDW’s Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers mini-series, as well as the bios included in Fun Publications’ Transformers material. In any case, I find that these bios aid in adding more depth to the universe and fleshing out the characters more.

So far, I would say the Skylanders comic is off to a good start. I would have to read more issues once the comic officially debuts in October to get a better idea of the comic’s general quality, but I would still say that this issue from Comic-Con was really well-executed. As a prequel, it seems to set up the plot of Trap Team well, though again I can’t judge that fully until I get to play the game. The writing and art are both executed well and the story gives potential players a glimpse of what Trap Team will be like in terms of new characters and plot. This comic is a must-have for Skylanders fans, and if you didn’t attend Comic-Con, I would suggest trying to seek this one out if you are interested. Hopefully this issue becomes reprinted in the future, perhaps in a trade paperback of some sort, so that those who didn’t attend the show will be able to read this story, but for now eBay is probably your best bet if you don’t have a copy already.

Report from the Front: SDCC 2014 Video Game Demos

As with last year’s Comic-Con, I saw the convention as an opportunity to play some demos of upcoming games to see if they might be worth a future investment. While I did accomplish this goal on Sunday, the last and shortest day of the convention, I’ll admit right off the bat that I didn’t get the opportunity to play all of the games that I could have played. I didn’t end up playing Ultra Street Fighter 4 or anything at the Behemoth booth, nor did I get a chance to play the new Super Smash Bros. (though I’ll admit I consciously avoided it due to Nintendo always having a crowded booth). I also didn’t play Sunset Overdrive due to long lines (and wait times) and I also didn’t play Sonic Boom (I’ll stop there). However, I did get to play some games at the pretty empty Bandai Namco booth, as well as a couple games I’ve actually been anticipating. So, with all that said, let’s explore the games I actually tried out.

Preview Note: The following write-up solely expresses the opinions of the writer and is based on a work in progress. Should the final product be reviewed on Trophy Unlocked, these opinions may change to reflect the full game.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix (PlayStation 3)

This should be pretty obvious already, but I really love the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Going into the convention, I already knew that I wanted to play the upcoming HD 2.5 Remix, which features tweaked HD versions of the Final Mixes for both Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep, plus the cutscenes of Re:coded. However, I never actually anticipated that I would be able to play a demo of this hotly anticipated game at the Square Enix booth on the floor. Since I was waiting for a signing, and I had enough time to kill, I decided to try it out, finding myself in front of one of the kiosks for the Birth by Sleep portion of the game (there were plenty nearby for the Kingdom Hearts II portion).

The Birth by Sleep demo contained sections for Terra, Ventus and Aqua, the three main characters of the game. In the time I was there, I got to play through all of the Terra section and most of the one for Ventus. Though short, these sections really show off all of the improvements made to the game, the most noticeable one being the graphics. Simply put, this game now looks absolutely amazing, like how the PSP version looks in your mind’s eye. Character models are now much slicker and all of the little details are shown with more clarity. Combat remains exactly the same as the original game, but now with the added bonus of using the right analog stick to control the camera and a single shoulder button to lock on, creating much smoother combat.

I'm still getting used to my new Smartphone.

While the experience was very nice, there were a couple of sticking points. The camera was a little weird for me to control since it was inverted and pretty loose. I can chalk this up to the fact that I couldn’t access an options menu during the demo and that I didn’t have enough time to adjust to it. The other is that while the pre-determined command deck wasn’t that bad, I couldn’t change it even though I acquired different commands during Ventus’ section. Then again, I also play the Keyblade warriors differently than the demo would have me do, so the selection would naturally have been jarring. Nonetheless, December 2 can’t get here fast enough.

Aw yeah!

Dead Rising 3 (PC)

Since I played both Dead Rising 2 and it’s updated rerelease, Off the Record, on PS3, I’ve been a fan of the series, going so far as to buy the original Dead Rising for Xbox 360 (though I haven’t played it yet). Since Off the Record, I had anticipated the thought of a Dead Rising 3, though when they did finally announce it, my heart sank when I saw it would only be for the Xbox One. I also felt a little pissed off since PlayStation users previously had access to the series through both versions of Dead Rising 2, only to take that away with the latest installment. When they announced a Steam release however, my spirits were lifted by the possibility of finally being able to play it. On Sunday at Comic-Con, I was a bit surprised at how small the line was to play this game (i.e. almost non-existent).

Pictured: A hope spot.

I didn’t play very much of the game because time and Psycho fight with no preparation, but I really enjoyed what I played. I like the idea of the open world atmosphere, as it presents more opportunities to do what you want and craft combinations of items. The graphics are the best I’ve seen of the series so far and the frame rate suffered no drops despite the large number of zombies on display at once. One of the best features however is that there were absolutely no loading times, an impressive feat indeed. After I played for a bit I talked to the rep about the game and he informed me of other really cool features, such as combo vehicles and one mechanic I had been clamoring for since I played Dead Rising 2: time is no longer an issue. Dead Rising 3 is more of an open sandbox where you can do what you want and accomplish the individual story goals pretty much any time you want, while also having other side missions sprinkled throughout Los Perdidos. For those who want the traditional time limit and save options, there is also a Nightmare Mode for increased difficulty. All of these features and more are getting me excited to play as Nick Ramos sometime in the future.

Project Cars (PlayStation 4)

I’ll admit that I’m not really familiar with this title, having only really heard about it at SDCC when I saw it at the Bandai Namco booth. However, since no one was really playing it and I had time to kill, I decided to give it a shot; I regretted this decision. The idea seems to be that it’s a more realistic racing game, though I couldn’t really get into it. The steering felt incredibly floaty and hard to wrestle with, with too much movement on the right stick causing me to spin out. Maybe this was due to in-game damage I suffered while trying to figure things out, but even when the car was “fresh” I still had a hard time getting used to the controls, even when I found out which button was the handbrake. I wasn’t really interested in playing this game anyway, but my time with it only drove the wedge between me and the game even further. I know someone out there will buy it, and they can go ahead and do so, but I certainly won’t.

Pictured: A metaphor.

Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures 2 (PlayStation 3/Nintendo 3DS)

As I did with Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures last year, I decided to play Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures 2, once again on two platforms (in this case PS3 and 3DS). This time I got a better feel for the games, with Pac-Man still being able to go between two different forms, in one case resembling a 3D version of his original arcade appearance. The controls are very responsive and the levels feel pretty polished, although some of the puzzles require a good amount of patience (Full Disclosure: I sucked at the puzzles). It’s still not pretty exciting to me, and I won’t be investing in it in the future, but if you feel like getting it then by all means do so; I guess I’m just not the audience is all.

Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment (PlayStation Vita)

Okay, I have some background on this one. I watched Sword Art Online as it aired on Toonami because people were talking about it and I was taking a Japanese class at the time (where other students kept talking about it). I didn’t have high expectations and when I first saw it, I actually kind of liked it. The premise was very interesting, providing a sense of urgency through people trapped in an MMORPG where death is real. Kirito was also shaping up to be an interesting character, since he had Beta Tested the titular game and had planted the seeds for a future relationship with a girl he knew nothing about. I figured that this sort of high stakes, emotional beginning would be the start of something great. Of course, once I finished watching it, it turned out that the story didn’t care about any of that and now I can describe it best with a single image:

Their words, not mine.

That said, when I saw the game with no one in front of it, I figured “Why not?” and began playing. A few seconds in though, I realized I had made a mistake. I had no context for anything going on and the control scheme felt highly unorthodox. The graphics were pretty decent from what I remember, but unfortunately I don’t have much to say beyond that. I kind of figured out the controls as I fought a few monsters, but after about a minute I felt I wasn’t going to be able to give it a fair shake, especially since I couldn’t just go back to the main menu or some similarly safe place, and just decided to stop playing. If I had an opportunity to play where I wasn’t just dumped in the middle of things and given more time to adjust to the controls, I’d probably go for it, but as it stands I’m not too enthusiastic about it.

It's hard to get a clear photo of a handheld game.

So ends another San Diego Comic-Con Wrap-Up. Hopefully I’ll get to play more games next year and find out about games I’m anticipating, as well as maybe walk away as a fan of something else.

Also, I apologize for the lateness of this post. I’ve been putting Comic-Con away at home and also got really into JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle (foreshadowing alert!).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Report from the Front: San Diego Comic-Con 2014

Another Comic-Con has come and gone and while I don’t pretend to yet be an expert on the event, I’ve only gone eight times out of the last nine, we at Trophy Unlocked would like to share our experience for those who didn't go and compare ours to those who did.

I recently read someone describe Comic-Con as the child of Las Vegas and Disneyland that liked to read comics and watch movies. That’s not too far from the truth, without the gambling and the prostitution. It is an overwhelming sensory overload. There is too much to do and see and no way you can come close to doing it all.

I am not the first person to call Comic-Con Line-Con, and it is certainly that. I don’t know what it’s like for professionals, vendors or the press, but Joe Congoer spends an inordinate amount of time in the queue. And I’m not talking about the crazies who spend the night in line for Hall H or arrive at three in the morning to be first in line for the Hasbro exclusives.

There is a line for everything from picking up your badge, to getting in, for autographs, panels and just about everything else. Now don’t get me wrong, you can develop some very intense and short-lived relationships in a line. My personal favorite was the younger woman with a crush on one of the artists involved in The Hacktivist. While standing in line it was obvious that she had a crush and short of squealing, it was easy to sense her excitement. I held her place in line while sending her to see if she could get his autograph, but she quickly came back. I asked if she wanted a photograph with him and she said yes and even though I was ahead of her in line, I hung around to take their picture together. She thanked me and gave me and my wife a hug of gratitude. I really felt like I helped to make her day.

Welcome to San Diego Line-Con 2014.

Like most Con goers, we plan and plan and plan, making spreadsheets and having discussions on what to take, who to see, what panels to try for and what off-site events we might be interested in. And plan as much as we do, sometimes you have to throw it out the window. Schedules change, artists and writers don’t show up on time and lines get capped. But there are also those moments when magic happens. As an example: Going by the Shout! booth on Saturday morning on our way to Toy Tokyo to buy a figurine of Zombie Kirk Hammett from Metallica, we noticed they were handing out free posters for “Weird Al” Yankovic’s UHF movie, a film we had recently reviewed here on the blog and a favorite of two of the writers. We were informed that there was going to be a signing that afternoon at 5, limited to 50 people with wristbands and just like that I’m going to meet “Weird Al” in person. But before that, my family met Kirk Hammett and in between I was able to meet Dave Gibbons, the artist behind Watchmen, and get him to sign my 12 issues of that ground-breaking comic book. Quite a day, but not the day we had anticipated or had planned out in our living room days before.

Kirk Hammett from Metallica was at Comic-Con signing zombie figurines.

Speaking of standing in line to meet someone, here’s a pet peeve: You’ve been standing in line for sometimes up to an hour to have a moment with someone, maybe it’s a geeky moment, but you’ve put in your time in line for a few moments of face time and someone the artist knows, or someone passing by the signing, will stick themselves into the midst. I had a least two occasions in Artists Alley when I got up to the front and someone who knew the artist would come over and start talking to them. “Have you seen so and so?” “You know it’s been a long time since we talked…” Not that I’m an attention hog, but I’m suddenly just standing there watching two old friends catch up rather than blurting out what I’d been practicing in line to say. It’s rude of that other person to just come up as if the artist wasn’t busy and start talking to them, taking away the time I’ve put in to see them, just because you’re old friends. This is not as bad though as the artist/actor/whatever who is not dedicated to the moment or the reason they’re there, especially when they’re charging for their time (Bruce Boxleitner), but gratefully we didn’t run into any of those this year.

And let's not forget The Aquabats! They were there, too.

Every artist, writer, editor and musician we spoke with were all very nice people. Tired and sometimes overwhelmed by the attention they’re receiving, but very nice and appreciative. You can tell the ones, like Hammett, Gibbons and Yankovic, who are used to the attention from those who are just starting to get it and it’s all so new to them.

One of the coolest exclusives was a Gumball comic book inside a SNES gaming cartridge from BOOM!

If you’re doing a booth signing, most will let you know about their other work they’ve done, which are usually at their fingertips for sale, but that’s part of the dance. And if you like their work, the least you can do is support them. You'd want the same in return, wouldn’t you?

And while you stand in line quite a bit, you also walk and walk, whether you’re going from Artists Alley to the IDW booth and back or just wandering up and down the aisles, you need a comfortable pair of shoes. Comic-Con (in reality the SD Fire Marshall) has a no loitering policy, so you have to keep moving and most walls have a no standing or sitting policy on them. Now I know how sharks feel.

Even the bathrooms seemed to have sponsors.

In the five days were down there, including Wednesday, in which we essentially drove most of the day and Sunday, which was a short day, the Walking Mate app on my phone shows I walked 50.9 miles or a little over 10 miles a day. Add to that I’m carrying a ten pound backpack most of that time and while your mileage may vary, that’s not a bad work out. (Still gained a couple of pounds, which doesn’t really seem quite fair.)

Dave Gibbons, the artist on Watchmen.

That will lead me to food, I guess. We usually bring ours in with us, which saves time and money. Believe it or not the lines are pretty long at the snack bars and they’re not cheap. Though that pizza looked and smelled a lot better than the fried chicken breast I ate on day three, which was about four days old at the time. In years past, we’d relied on the nearby Subway sandwich, which we’d bought the night before. Those got pretty old after a while, so we haven’t quite got the food bit nailed down. Hey, it’s only been eight times.

"Weird Al" speaks to one of the writers on Trophy Unlocked.

One of the improvements/upgrades we made as a family this year was getting smart phones. Part of the reason was to be able to check prices. Sale Items at the Con are oftentimes higher than they would be at say Amazon. But we also wanted to be able to better use the free provided Wi-Fi so as to better communicate with each other. This worked only so-so. I think there are still texts I’ve sent that haven’t been received, such as “Where are you?” and other missives that would have been nice to get more immediately than not. I had to sign in repeatedly to the ATT service because the phone and the ISP didn’t remember each other and who has to suffer? We do. Still you can always call as long as the person you’re reaching out to can hear the phone ring over the din. Someone pointed out that the hall is carpeted to deaden the sound; otherwise I can only imagine how loud it would be.

Another issue with smart phones is that the battery seems to run down very quickly. I would recommend taking a pre-charged charger with you in case your phone is down to 10% and you still have the evening ahead of you.

Clothing is another consideration. We all wore jean jackets, mostly for the pockets, but those get very hot and the last thing you want to be is sweaty. Jackets have their place, but it is not in the Con. We’re looking into cargo pants or some other wardrobe option.

One of the best reasons to go to Comic-Con are the panels, whether they are professional or for pleasure. We didn’t attend as many as we have in the past, but sometimes you have to decide if the panel is worth the time suck. And even for those that are worth it, there is a limit. We had to pass on one for Gravity Falls, because the line was impossibly long. If a show like that is popular then you really need to attend the panel prior and in that case the one before that, in order to get a seat. An hour wasn’t long enough and there was no guarantee of getting in.

The Penny Arcade booth at Comic-Con.

We barely got into one panel thrown by the Warner Archives: Trailers from Hell. Seems it was the panel before one on Mass Effect and the line was not really full of lovers of old films, but rather video gamers. We got in by the skin of our teeth and only as long as we promised we weren’t staying for the next panel (nothing against Mass Effect) and then in individual seats, which turned out to be one behind the other behind the other. But that’s the cool part about the Con, people get exposed to new things and I would imagine a few of those in attendance will check out the Warner Archives Instant streaming service now that they learned it exists. I know that’s how I became exposed to Watchmen; we were attending a panel, Watching the Watchmen so we could attend another panel afterwards. And yes, I told that to Dave Gibbons when I met him.

While everyone’s convention experience is quite different, I really had a good, but exhausting time. I was able to meet people I had only been communicating with through email and Facebook messaging (I won’t name names so they can maintain credible deniability that they know me).

After attending, it’s always a good idea to think about what you did that you don’t want to do again and what you still have on your plate to do. For the latter, it’s getting up at 4 am to get in line for Hasbro. There is something demoralizing when that’s not early enough. It really takes it out of you and when your day can go to 11 as ours did that night, it’s really exhausting and for what? No, we’re done trying to get that golden ticket (or red stamp if you want to be honest).

Things I’d still like to do: Well, there are so many things outside the convention center that I can never seem to get to. And the Con is only expanding out. There’s so much to do inside the Convention Center that getting outside seems nearly impossible. And, of course, there is Hall H. Every year you hear about everyone who lines up the night before and I’ve seen them. But I don’t want to be a part of that. And just about as often I hear that people walk into Hall H later in the day into panels that are not full. So I might just have to try that one afternoon.

Something else I didn't make it over to was the Fox salute to the Simpsons next to the Hilton.

After last year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go again, but now I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Stubs – Min and Bill

Min and Bill (1930) Starring: Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery. Directed by George Hill. Screenplay by Francis Marion, Marion Jackson. Suggested by the novel Dark Star by Lorna Moon. Run Time: 66 minutes. U.S.  Black and White Drama, Comedy

Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery may seem like unlikely movie stars, let alone box-office champs, but at one time both were considered major stars at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, their home studios. In fact, Beery was at one time the highest paid actor on the lot with a guarantee in his contract that he would make one dollar more than any other actor.

Charlie Chaplin co-starred with Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914).

A surprise star, Dressler was no stranger to movies, having appeared in the Mack Sennett comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance(1914) as Tillie Banks, along with Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin. The film was based on a Broadway play she starred in, Tillie’s Nightmare. But she did not appear in films from 1918 until 1927, likewise her stage career had pretty much ended after World War I. However, she was offered a film role in 1927 and went on to have a second and very successful career. In 1933, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Marie Dressler was the first woman on the cover of Time magazine.

Beery was not a pretty face either. His film career included a series of shorts in which he played Sweedie, the Swedish maid, a masculine character in drag. In 1916, he married Gloria Swanson, who also starred with him in Sweedie Goes to College (1915). But their marriage was short and troubled, including allegations of rape and a forced abortion. He went on to make many notable silent films, including Beggars of Life (1927) with Louise Brooks. Hired by Irving Thalberg to work at M-G-M, Beery would go onto to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Big House (1930). 

At M-G-M, Dressler and Beery were first paired in Min and Bill and the combination made them both box-office gold. And Min and Bill was a very successful film, making $2 million back when that was real money. But while I’ve heard of Min and Bill, I had never actually seen the film until a recent day long salute on TCM to Beery.
Min (Dressler), is a hard-boiled, self-sacrificing proprietress of a waterfront hotel, where her on-again off-again sweetheart and close friend Bill (Beery), a fisherman, also lives. We first see Bill’s ship arrive in port with hatches full of tuna and six bottles of Russian vodka that he bought 12 miles out in International waters and sells to Min for $10.

The relationship between Bill (Beery) and Min (Dressler) is left somewhat ambiguous.

Years before, a prostitute, Bella (Marjorie Rambeau), left her unwanted daughter, Nancy (Dorothy Jordan), in Min’s care. Nancy, now a teenager, works long days at the hotel, and catches the eye of a sailor on Bill’s crew, Alec Johnson (Russell Hopton), which Min does not like. Alec follows Nancy into the kitchen and Min follows after to break things up before they get too far. Min tells Bill that she doesn’t like Alec making eyes at Nancy.

Meanwhile, Nancy takes a load of trash down the pier to throw it in the water, some of which gets on to Dick Cameron (Donald Dillaway), whose motor boat is docked on the pier. Dick takes offense and yells at Nancy until Min arrives and chases him away. Min starts to untie the boat, but when Nancy gets in, they accidentally start the engine and steal it. Dick takes chase in another boat and then Bill and the police chase after in a second boat.

Runaway speedboat in the harbor. Let the laughs start. Please!

What follows is supposed to be a funny chase scene as the out of control speed boat narrowly misses pilings, bridges and other boats in the harbor. At one point, Min gets thrown from the boat into the water on a sharp turn. Dick jumps from one boat to the other to rescue Nancy. Meanwhile, Min gets picked up out of the water on crane and is dangling there when Bill and the police arrive.

Back at the hotel, Bill gives Min a comical massage, mostly him pulling up on her neck to realign her spine. Min finally convinces Bill that she’s better so he’ll stop. Just then, a truant officer (DeWitt Jennings) arrives to talk to Min about Nancy. He tries to persuade Min that she is not a fit mother and that Nancy should be sent away to school. Min agrees to send Nancy to school, but for the time refuses to give up Nancy.

Min confronts a truant officer who comes about Nancy (Dorothy Jordan).

Up in her room, Min hides money from the till in a sock and catches Bill spying at her through the lock in the door. Bill tells her that her sock isn’t safe, but Min convinces Bill she’s ready to ward off potential robbers, showing him her gun. She tells him that she’s been saving money for 40 years in hopes of saving enough so she can go back to Seattle, where she’s from. Looking out the window, Bill sees Alec with Nancy.

Down at the dock, Alec is making promises to Nancy, if she’ll sneak away with him to San Francisco. He starts to put the moves on her, when Min and Bill arrive to break things up again. Min has Bill sock Alec, knocking him out.

Nancy complains to Min that all she wants is to have is a good time and tells her that in a couple of years there will be nothing Min can do to stop her from dressing up and drinking with the gang. Min decides then and there to take Nancy away from the docks. Telling Nancy that she only wants her gone to save her business, Min packs up Nancy’s things and takes her to the school superintendent’s house, the Southards (Frank McGlynn and Greta Gould). Min makes up a story about Nancy’s parents so she doesn’t sound like such a low-life. Nancy begs Min to let her go home with her, but Min is adamant. It is obvious that even though she’s doing the right thing, she still feels bad about it.

At school, Nancy gets okay grades, nothing to write home about, but she has a problem with attendance and tardiness. After hitting another girl, Nancy runs back to Min. But while fishing off the pier, she manages to inadvertently snag Dick’s hat while he rides by in his motor boat. Dick is mad and starts to confront Nancy, when Min comes back. Nancy begs to stay, but Min demands that she return to school, telling the girl she never wants to see her again.

Min took in Nancy because her mother was unfit to raise her.

When Min goes into the hotel, she sees Bill drinking with a woman, whom he doesn’t realize is Bella, Nancy’s mother. Min convinces Bella to come upstairs so they can talk. Reluctantly, Bella goes, though she flirts with Bill on her way up the stairs. In Min’s room, Bella asks about her kid. Min lies and tells her that the girl was fragile and died several years ago. Bella’s a wreck, but it’s hard to tell if it’s from the news of her daughter’s death or the trip she’s just made or it’s the drinking she’s been doing with Bill. Min allows Bella to lie down in her room. But right then and there, Min decides that she needs to get Nancy even further away.

Bill doesn't know that his new drinking buddy is Bella (Marjorie Rambeau), Nancy's real mother.

Taking her nest egg, she hurries over to the Southards. But no sooner has she left then Bill comes into the room. Bella seems to have recovered significantly to have a few more drinks with Bill.

Meanwhile, Min tells the Southards that Nancy’s mother had left money to make sure Nancy got a good education at a girls’ school. Mr. Southard agrees to get Nancy in a school up north. Outside, Min tells Mr. Southard to get Nancy out of town in 24 hours or else she would take her back.

Back at the hotel, Min walks in on Bill and Bella. Min kicks Bella out of the hotel, but saves her real anger for Bill. Bill really looks afraid of Min. They end up rolling around on the floor. Bill tries to escape out the window, but Min puts him a chokehold and throws things at Bill. Bill retreats into his closet and tries to lock himself inside.

But Min returns with an axe and cuts through the door. Bill wrestles with Min for control of the axe. Min ends up biting Bill’s arm and knocking him to the ground. Suddenly worried that Bill might be hurt, Min comforts him.

After beating him up, Min comforts Bill.

Two years later, Nancy sends Min a letter, which she reads to Bill while he munches on a watermelon and spits out the seeds. In the letter, Nancy tells Min that she’s returning with Dick.

Onboard ship it is obvious that Nancy and Dick are in love. But when the night air proves to be too cold, the couple unknowingly sits on some deck chairs outside of Bella’s cabin. Bella, who is doing what she does best, gets caught by ship officials with a man in her room. She takes notice of how Nancy and Dick move away after the man in her room leaves. Bella thinks they’re acting snooty.

The next day, Min goes down to the dock to meet the boat, but hides in the shadows when she sees the Southards are there to meet Nancy and Dick. Instead, Min runs into Bella and pretends that bygones are bygones and invites her back to the hotel. When Bill sees Min with Bella, he tries to sneak away, but gets caught. Min convinces him that they are all old friends now. But when Bill starts to tell Min, in front of Bella, about seeing Nancy getting off the boat, Min kicks him to stop.

Up on the roof of the hotel, Min, with Bella in tow, tries to keep a lookout for Nancy and Dick. When she sees them arrive, she makes an excuse to Bella and then goes downstairs to meet with Nancy. Min tries to keep her at arm’s length, keeping up the ruse that she doesn’t care about the girl, hoping she’ll go away. Nancy tells Min that she and Dick are going to be married, are planning to move to Boston and that she and Dick want Min to come live with them. Min starts to get, but stops herself from getting, caught up in the fantasy.

Bella, who has been waiting for Min to return, comes downstairs and runs into Nancy. But neither knows the relationship with the other and all Bella can talk about is how Nancy reacted on the boat. Min does her best to chase Nancy away, telling her that she doesn’t want any part in the wedding or the newlyweds’ lives. Nancy cries to Dick, who tells her that they’ll forget all about Min.

On the day of the wedding, Min tries to use a fortune teller game to keep Bella away from the ceremony and encourages her to go to San Francisco where good fortune supposedly awaits her. But Bella has heard about the wedding from some dockhands, who tell her that the Dick is marrying a girl from the docks and decides that the girl, Nancy Smith, is really her daughter. Bella tells Min that she plans to make the most of the opportunity to get some money from Nancy and Dick.

Bella tells Min she plans to get money from Nancy and her fiance, Dick. Min can't let her do that.

But Min doesn’t want Bella to ruin Nancy’s first chance at real happiness. Min tells Bella that she won’t let her leave the room. Bella tries to get out by burning Min’s face with a heated curling iron. Min returns the favor by shooting Bella dead with her gun.

Alec happens to be in the hallway outside Min’s door but hides when he hears Bill approaching. When Bill sees Bella’s dead body, he tells Min that she’s going with him on a fishing trip to Mexico. But once they leave, Alec goes inside the room and finds the body; and apparently tells the police about the shooting.

Min doesn’t follow Bill down to his boat. Rather, when she hears the horns at the pier, she goes down to look at the wedding ceremony. Min sees Nancy looking happy, but stays too long. In the final scene, as Nancy sails off on her honeymoon, Min is led away by the police. Even though she is in custody, Min manages to smile, knowing Nancy is safe and happy.

The film ends with Min seeing that Nancy is safe and happy.

The film was such a success that Dressler and Beery would be paired again in Tugboat Annie (1933) and Dinner at Eight (1933). While Dressler would win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Min, Beery would win one too, at the same Award show, for Best Actor, but for The Champ (1931) [Prior to 1933, the Academy Awards were not tied to the calendar like they are today.]

Beery and Dressler leaving their hand prints at Grauman's Chinese
Theater on January 31, 1931, following the success of Min and Bill.

Min and Bill would find Beery somewhere in the middle of his long career. He would go on to appear in a total of about 250 films in a 36 year career from 1913 to 1949. He would die in 1949 of a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home.

Dressler’s return to films was almost over by the time she made Min and Bill. She would appear in less than ten more films before her career ended in 1933, just three years later. She did earn one more Best Actress Academy nomination for her role in Emma (1932). She died of cancer in 1934 at the age of 65.

Min and Bill is one of those films I had heard about for years, but when I actually saw it the film proved to be a disappointment. I really wanted to like this movie, since I had always heard how wonderful everyone was in it. I’m afraid I don’t see it. Dressler, who seemed to be on screen twice as much as Beery, is sometimes hard to understand as her character sometimes speaks with broken English. Also I don’t find her face to be very expressive. Maybe that’s what makes the half smile at the end of the movie so memorable, but I’m not sure they make up for the rest of the film. Beery’s Bill is really a supporting character in the film, despite the actor getting equal billing. This role did not make me a fan of his. Of course, it apparently had the opposite effect on audiences in 1930.

The film seems very dated and hasn’t aged well. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a silent film with talking added to it as an afterthought; even Leo the Lion’s roar at the beginning is silent. While the film seems to capture the depressing hardship of life on the docks, the story it tells didn’t grab me and I didn’t think the acting was all that great. Sometimes it’s difficult to watch a popular film from decades ago and understand what all the fuss was about. This is truly the case with Min and Bill.

If you’re like me and have heard about Min and Bill, I would tell you that its reputation is overblown.

This film is available through the Warner Archive:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

UHF - A Humorous Time Capsule From The Years Of Analog TV

Within the last week, popular parody artist “Weird Al” Yankovic has released his newest album, Mandatory Fun, to much fanfare while also representing the end of his long-standing recording contract. To commemorate this, we on this blog present a review of his 1989 feature film, UHF (Note: The title refers to the Ultra High Frequency analog band, which was how low-budget programming was often broadcasted on TV). When this movie was originally released, the original distributor, Orion Pictures, was facing financial trouble, and so believed that this movie would rescue them from bankruptcy due to test audiences reacting positively. However, the movie ended up being a major flop in theaters (it was released in the same summer as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; Ghostbusters II; When Harry Met Sally; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and Tim Burton’s Batman to name a few), and thus wasn’t exactly the savior they were hoping for. I’m not sure I would say this failure at the box office was to blame, but Orion would go under some time later and get swallowed by MGM, a fact so well-known to the point that it was used as a punchline in Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. The good news though is that UHF would attain cult status after hitting the home video market, where it would remain successful for quite some time; it quickly went out of print when it hit on VHS, causing demand to become so high that it became a #1 seller not long after its later DVD release. While its popularity as a cult film is something that continues to persist, is UHF a movie worth tuning in to?

The story opens with a parody of the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is soon revealed to be the daydream of George Newman (“Weird Al” Yankovic), whose overactive imagination keeps costing him and his friend, Bob Steckler (David Bowe), a number of jobs, including their current one at Big Edna’s Burger World. Once the two of them get fired, George finds it hard to face his girlfriend, Teri Campbell (Victoria Jackson), and during their conversation he ends up constructing mashed potatoes in the shape of a hillside in a brief parody of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Later at a party, George’s uncle, Harvey Bilchik (Stanley Brock), arrives after winning the deed to a UHF station in a gamble, later giving it to George after a suggestion from his wife. Sometime later, when George and Teri arrive at the station to scope it out, George is weirded out at first by its sole resident, a scientist named Philo (Anthony Geary), but decides anyway to try and turn the station into a success.

Indiana Jones fans should be able to recognize this.

Using this premise, not to mention the part of the plot where the UHF station (Channel U62) faces some competition with Channel 8, the movie is able to showcase some great comedy, with George’s (day)dreams and the channel’s programming offering a perfect excuse for a good portion of the humor to take place. There are a few moments of gross-out humor here and there, which I’m personally not too fond of in comedies, but these moments are overshadowed by such gems as a game show called Wheel of Fish and fake ads for such things as a U62 program called Conan the Librarian and a store named Spatula City. Of course, there’s also a good deal of slapstick and funny dialogue to help mix up the humor a bit, but through all of this the movie also manages to tell a coherent story from beginning to end. Aside from a few misses here and there in the comedy, these elements combined result in a very funny movie, although admittedly some of the parodies present would only really be funny to someone familiar in any way with what is being parodied (for example, a music video parody of the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” and its music video).

Wheel of Fish: It's like Wheel of Fortune, except not really.

On the subject of music, that is another positive aspect of UHF, some of which includes original material by “Weird Al” Yankovic (it is his movie after all). When the background music is there, it does help the tone of a scene, to the point of also being able to sell some of the parodies on display. As mentioned previously, one of these parodies includes a Dire Straits song, the parody called “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies*” (because lawyers), and while the music video does have some context, it does appear to come somewhat out of nowhere, seeming to primarily serve as a way to show the video. Getting back on track, the soundtrack is good and is available as a “Weird Al” album, UHF – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff, though it should be noted that the album also has some original material on it due to not being able to include all the music and sound bites on it that they wanted. Some of said “other stuff” to me is better than others, but if you enjoy some of the music and audio from the movie, then this is an album worth seeking out.

Available now!

The movie also has a pretty decent cast, with “Weird Al” Yankovic himself showing that he has some range as the lead character George Newman (though this is also evident in some of the many TV cameos he has made over the years in various cartoons). David Bowe helps to serve as a good secondary lead to Yankovic, though he’s more or less in the background for much of the latter half of the movie, and Michael Richards does a good job as Stanley Spadowski, who gets in some funny moments of his own. Kevin McCarthy also does a great job with his character R.J. Fletcher, the mean head of Channel 8 who would want nothing more than for Channel U62 to go under. The movie also has a good supporting cast, with cameos made by Emo Phillips and Dr. Demento, the latter of whom Yankovic owes much of his musical success to, with a special mention to Trinidad Silva in his final film role as Raul, who runs an animal show on U62 from his apartment; unfortunately, Silva passed before his parts could be completed, though his character was kept in the movie in his memory. In any case, I wouldn’t really have any complaints about the acting or the casting.

Raul's (Trinidad Silva) parts are worth it for a laugh.

UHF is a funny movie and deserving of its cult following, though it’s mainly for fans of “Weird Al” Yankovic and the style of humor the movie presents. It has a good cast and a great sense of humor for the most part, and Yankovic’s music shines through when possible, most notably in the aforementioned Dire Straits parody. This isn’t one of the greatest movies ever made, nor is it exactly for everyone, but for fans of Yankovic’s work this is definitely a must-see. If you are a fan of comedy movies and just want a good laugh, this movie is probably one of the better options to consider.

Here’s hoping “Weird Al” Yankovic sees success in any future endeavors.

On sale now!